My fellow photographer friend Wil C. Fry recently participated in a project to create a photograph every day that illustrates some aspect of a visual phenomenon called bokeh. Bokeh, economically put, describes the character of the out-of-focus elements of a photograph. One goal of many photographers, especially portrait and commercial photographers, is to achieve “good” bokeh, which usually means an out-of-focus field that is smooth and flattering. Mastering bokeh can compliment a cadre of photographic skills, but in the end, it is just a tool in the tool box, not a goal unto itself.
One of my favorite lenses for 15 year or more was the ubiquitous (among news photographers) 180mm f/2.8 ED Nikkor lens. Optically, this gem was virtually flawless, producing sharp images both in good light and when it was pushed to the margins. A few years ago I sold it and got the autofocus equivalent, the 180mm f/2.8 ED-IF AF-Nikkor. It sports improved optics in a modernized package for modern digital cameras, and is an absolute joy to use.
It, like its predecessor, also exhibits superior bokeh in the right hands and under the right circumstances. Since the lens is sharp at f/2.8 (“wide open” in pro parlance), I usually shoot it there, and that’s where its best bokeh lives.
As you can see, the background just melts away, and is very flattering in that it leaves the viewer focused on the subject. One reason for this is the fact that the 180mm is not a zoom. In the photo world, we refer to non-zooms as “prime” lenses. There’s a lot to be said for primes, such as their lighter weight and larger apertures at the same focal lengths, and, because of their relative optical simplicity, more predictable and flattering bokeh than many zoom lenses.
Ultimately the goal of achieving good bokeh is to forget it; if the viewer or client sees and notices bokeh, you have failed. Nobody pays for bokeh – they pay for portraits or ads or news photos or commercial images. Learn it, add it to your tool box, and it will serve you well.